April 2018 View more

There are over 500 stories a year to be heard, and none of them has a happy ending. Each is unique but heartbreakingly similar—a child falls victim to someone they love and trust, the repercussions rippling out to family, friends, classmates and sometimes even entire communities.

Child abuse can happen anywhere—no social or economic demographic is immune. Fortunately here in DuPage County, young victims have support thanks to the Children’s Advocacy Center within the State’s Attorney’s office.

The DuPage County Children’s Advocacy Center on North County Farm Road in Wheaton was founded to streamline a previously complicated system, in which children had to tell their stories again and again to different officials. The center maintains close links with the Department of Family Services, the police, counselors and hospitals, but everything is designed to make victims feel as comfortable as possible. Today, victims tell their story to one official; they no longer have to repeat it over and over.

The Children’s Advocacy Center deals with around 500 cases a year, seeing children from all over DuPage County from the ages of 17 down to any child who can make him/herself understood. Staff includes attorneys, investigators and caseworkers, a caring band of highly skilled individuals whose reward is bringing perpetrators to justice while helping their young victims process what has happened and—hopefully—gain some kind of closure.

DuPage County State’s Attorney Robert Berlin, who heads the organization, says in 2012 they saw 400 cases, but by last year the number had risen to 507. “This is due in part to greater awareness; there is more of an outcry now. In the past people were afraid to speak up,” he says. “But there is also an increase in the number of cases, which is disturbing.”

Victims of sexual and physical abuse are always encouraged to come forward. “One of the things that has been strengthened more recently is the reporting laws,” he says. “Teachers, doctors, dentists and social workers are all mandatory reporters. We all try to protect [the victims], which is why we have specially trained experts on staff.”

Although victims may be more likely now to speak up about domestic abuse, it doesn’t mean it’s any easier for them. “If a perpetrator is convicted and goes to prison, in many cases the family loses the chief money maker,” Berlin says.

Abuse cases can affect entire communities, and local residents often feel unsafe. “Their sense of security is shattered, it’s the social cost of crime,” he explains. “People don’t sleep at night, that’s part of the impact. If a child is victimized, their classmates are going to be impacted also, and it’s going to affect their grades and test scores, too.”

Berlin says his reward is making sure justice is served. “Our work is rewarding only in the sense that what we are able to do is provide a measure of justice to the victim and the community,” he says.

Investigator Bob Holguin has worked at the Children’s Advocacy Center since 1992. He admits the job made him even more protective of his own children as they were growing up.

“I was very, very careful because of everything I saw around me,” he says. “I was extra critical about who they hung out with, which friends’ homes they stayed over at. My children were more sheltered than others because of what we see here.”

Between 80 and 90 percent of child abusers are somebody the child knows. “It could be a friend’s uncle or bigger brother who sees an opportunity,” he says. “Although we teach our children about ‘stranger danger,’ [a perpetrator is] more likely to be a relative or family friend. It’s a really tough thing when you see children who were victimized by someone who was meant to love them. Children look to adults to protect them.”

Despite working with child victims for more than 30 years, Holguin still undergoes regular training. “We are taught not to ask leading questions. We have a systematic way of talking to them,” Holguin explains. “We talk to the younger ones about the differences between good touch and bad touch. All the time we are assessing their intelligence level, checking to see if they are ready to speak about the situation. I’m not saying it’s right 100 percent of the time, because occasionally one parent may pitch the child against another, but we are assessing them all the time.”

Over the years Holguin has dealt with some tough situations. One case involved a mother who left her five-year-old in her home country with her grandmother when she moved here to start a new life.

“The woman had twins with her new husband and everything was fine until she brought her daughter here to live with them,” he recalls. “The girl moved here in April and by July [her mother] had systematically beaten her to death. She never hurt her twins, and her husband didn’t hurt her at all. The mother is still in the penitentiary. It’s very hard to entertain the idea that this could happen. If she had left her [daughter] with her grandmother, she would have been safe.”

While caring for abused children is never easy, caseworker Stephanie Mogensen says the work is rewarding when families receive some kind of closure. “Most will get to write an impact statement, so they do get the chance to say ‘this is what you did to me,’” she explains. “The lifelong outcome depends on what happened and the individual child. It depends on their support system. If they are not supported by an adult, it may be an indicator that life will be more difficult for them.”

Mogensen, who has worked for the advocacy center for 12 years, says she is surprised at how resilient children can be. “If they are able to process what has happened to them they can move on,” she says. “Like adults, some fall apart, some don’t.”

She sees certain types of case regularly and supports Holguin’s view that abusers are usually known to their victims. “We have had cases of grandfathers abusing their grandchildren, but you know it started with other children long before they were born,” she says. “Normally they’ve been doing it their whole lives. If a child speaks out, often their siblings will say they’ve been hurt, too.”

Mogensen, who has a nine-year-old daughter, says she too is a very protective parent, also worried about the potential risks involved with sleepovers. Another potential problem is the popularity of social media. “When I started out, we were just getting cell phones, there was no social media at all,” she says. “Now it’s something that has totally changed our investigations. While social media can be very hard on kids, and gossip is out there forever, it can be very useful for us. For example, we can track text messages.”

Mogensen was recently recognized by U.S. Representative Peter Roskam for her years of service as a case manager with the Children’s Advocacy Center. In a press release Roskam says, “What an emotionally challenging and rewarding job it must be to comfort a child in the worst possible state of their young lives—Stephanie does this with grace and compassion. She has taken on a job that very few people have the emotional capacity to do, and she’s done it exceptionally well.”

State’s Attorney Berlin adds, “To Stephanie, it’s not just a job. She truly cares about these victims and that makes her so effective and important to the office. She’s passionate. She loves her job and we’re thankful she’s here doing it. Her long service to the victims and their families is truly commendable.”

If you are concerned that a young person you know is being abused or you are in danger yourself, contact your local police, the DuPage County Children’s Advocacy Center (630.407.2750) or the Illinois Child Abuse hotline (800.25.ABUSE).